Help! It’s the point-of-view Nazis!

Hello, readers —

Well, I’m a bit calmer today, after the hypothetical furor of last week. (See my last post, if this statement seems cryptic to you; I’m really too tired to go through it all again today. Suffice it to say: lawyers are having brisk conversations about my memoir even as I write this.) Many thanks to all of you who sent greetings and support; I appreciate it. Thanks, too, to those who took the time to check out the controversy about my book on the fan forums and post comments.

In a battle of opinions, especially one where the right to tell one’s own life story is at stake, every raised voice helps. I am told that the conversation on the fansite and other chatrooms has been pretty pointed over the last few days, which is both exciting and maddening: I am not allowed to visit the site to see for myself. (Since postings on that fan forum, matters that only the Dick estate could have known or had any interest in mentioning in public, may be evidence in an eventual slander suit, the lawyers want to keep me far, far away from it.) Thus, my information on the subject is courtesy of Dame Rumor, but it is comforting to know that people out there care if my work is censored.

Enough about my problems. Back to work.

A few weeks back, intelligent and curious reader Bob wrote in to report that he’d been having problems tracking down an earlier post of mine, on the dreaded Point-of-View Nazis. There was a good reason for this: my posts for October, November, December, and part of January disappeared into the ether when the PNWA switched servers early this year. Our fabulous webmaster tells me that these backlogs will indeed be available for perusal soon.

In the meantime, however, I would like to revisit the topic of Point-of-View Nazis, for the benefit of Bob and other intrepid backlog-searchers like him.

A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, contest judge, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this type of narrative conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of narration, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it renders the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN wild.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use, particularly in writing groups. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative.

He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth, if you please. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, bad writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary.

So much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN said, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good reader or editor who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems. If a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes, so to speak, for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to authors. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently terrible writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. They believe it, too. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Now, I have to admit something: I am not a big fan of this species of sweeping rule. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is possible. Call me nutty, but I believe that — apart from the rigors of standard format, which actually are inflexible — very little is forbidden in the hands of a truly talented writer.

In fact, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing utterly, but the result is, I think, brilliant. I had always been told that it is a serious mistake to let a protagonist feel sorry for himself for very long, as self-pity quickly becomes boring for the reader, but Annie Proulx showed us both a protagonist AND a love interest who feel sorry for themselves for virtually the entirety of THE SHIPPING NEWS, with great success.

And so on. I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forfend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative tend to produce, across a writing population. One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar. Why write in the third person at all, if there is no authorial voice over and above the protagonist’s?

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are exactly as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. (The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization, if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context.) Often, I find myself asking, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answers are very simple. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there IS no other way to write a third-person scene.

Philosophically, I find this troubling. In my experience, there are very few real-life situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Oops — once again, I have strayed back to my own dilemma. Hypothetically, I am being accused of committing the cardinal sin of suggesting that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view. Or at least, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds.

Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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